Not so much with the formalities and talk, more with the substance. The season preview continues today with the defense, and for your perusal, the start-of-season depth chart.
Starters: #90 Jake Snyder, #99 Brent Urban, #93 Will Hill, #47 Billy Schautz
Backups: #3 Ausar Walcott, #54 Justin Renfrow, #56 Chris Brathwaite, #7 Eli Harold
If you like run-stopping D-lines, this is your bag. This line is full of proven run-stoppers, and there's finally some size appearing on the depth chart; when Mike London took over, he did some shuffling and what used to be a monster-sized 3-4 D-line got smaller and quicker, particularly when London deployed 250-pound John-Kevin Dolce as a defensive tackle. That worked out fine in passing situations but as badly as you'd expect in run situations. You understand, of course, that it takes a while to bulk back up and keep the quickness, and we're finally getting to that point.
Not that anyone would confuse these guys with mammoth lane-cloggers. Only Justin Renfrow checks in at over 300 pounds (310, to be exact, an impressive feat for a guy who came in at 260) and the rest are nowhere close. (Renfrow is essentially the third member of a three-man rotation, rather than a true backup, so his bulk will get put to good use.) But they're finally big enough.
And they'll stop the run just fine. Big things are expected of Will Hill in that department. He's going into his senior year, and he's got an array of moves to use on blockers. I think he's a perfectly good replacement for Matt Conrath's disruptiveness. And Jake Snyder is basically a third DT on the field. Normally when you hear words like "unsung" or "overshadowed" you think DTs; this year, that's Snyder at strongside DE. He'll be asked to take on tight ends and double-teams and generally be an immovable object. Opposite him, Billy Schautz is also a senior and one of the craftiest and smartest players UVA has had in a long time. He's basically Will Sherrill in pads.
That said, he's got about that relative level of athleticism, too. Hill is the most athletic of the four starters and he's good, not great, in that department. This is an experienced bunch that knows their moves, but there's a serious lack of blowbyability here. London and Jim Reid are hoping safety-turned-linebacker-turned defensive end Ausar Walcott provides that, but the cavalry is arriving, too, in the form of super-recruit Eli Harold. Harold is incredibly light for a DE at 225 pounds, so I hope Reid is kidding when he says Harold can be used on running downs. That will come with time, but the truth is, Harold is in to do one thing and do it well: make quarterbacks go EEK. He'll have to take on charging 300-pound OTs if they run at him, and that won't go well; it's best he be the one charging.
On the fringes of playing time at DT are Chris Brathwaite and David Dean, and freshman Mike Moore at DE. The coaches are on the fence about whether or not to redshirt Moore, and ultimately I don't think they will. We should also get to see the wraps taken off of Brathwaite and Dean, both of whom have to get their technique sharpened but have a lot of athleticism and potential to make a mess in someone's backfield.
Whether or not this group can generate a pass rush is the question of the year, though. The coaches are going to have to get creative to help out an inexperienced secondary. UVA only managed 20 sacks last year, not an especially good number, and 11 of them are gone. The line as it stands represents five of them. Five is a really, really low number. Harold may lead the team in sacks, which is a ballsy thing to say about a freshman, but his non-sack-having compatriots make it less of a stretch.
Best-case: The run-stopping is as good as advertised - truthfully, part of what I'm saying here is intended to convince me as much as anyone. And in the pass-rush department, a repeat of last-year's below-average-but-not-terrible production would be about right.
Worst-case: Harold isn't ready for the rigors of the college game and his snaps decrease, rather than increase, as the year goes on. And moving Walcott to the front lines proves fairly useless. The worst pass-rushing team last year was Boston College with eight sacks - that's worst in the country, mind you, not just the ACC - and it's not hard to envision this group dropping to that level.
Starters: #44 Henry Coley, #53 Steve Greer, #9 Laroy Reynolds
Al Groh would be proud. Three of his recruits starting at linebacker, and comprising the defense's best unit to boot. The only thing missing is the quasi-DE sackmaster, but that's a scheme thing, not a personnel thing, and probably never to return. (Either that or just pretend Ausar Walcott never changed positions.)
You've got Steve Greer patrolling the middle, which is a huge plus: Greer is your prototypical tackling machine and defensive quarterback. Chances are this is your defensive MVP right here. Greer racked up 103 tackles last year and it wouldn't surprise to see him approach 120 this year. He's that good. You wish he could get to the sidelines a little quicker than he does, but that's nitpicking.
And Reynolds is a team captain for a reason. I remember an article that I linked many moons ago that pointed out his leadership qualities in high school, including an anecdote about how he would pitch in with the freshman chores as a senior. Leadership baby. Two team captains among three starters at linebacker - that's a wonderful thing to have.
Nobody here is a major-league thumper, so you won't see screaming athleticism, bone-jarring hits, or wide-receiver-esque wheels week in and week out. They make their statements with very sound fundamentals, picture-perfect tackling (remember Reynolds stuffing the Miami tailback on fourth-and-one?) and excellent reads. With luck, Henry Coley will fit right in - he's paid his dues, impressed the staff, and should blend seamlessly into the unit.
He didn't get there without a fight, though. Among the under-the-radar position battles was that between Coley and Daquan Romero for the strongside linebacker position. Coley put his claws into the job early, but not before Romero made his case. Romero will play, and more than he did last year as a true freshman.
But the real exciting possibility is at middle linebacker, where Kwontie Moore is apprenticing under Greer and being groomed for the role next year. It's a tricky deal for the coaches: you wish Greer could take every snap, but Moore needs reps. (Solution: have a 50-point lead at halftime, every week.) Nevertheless, hopefully this year will provide a nice glimpse of the future the way Demetrious Nicholson did last year. If Greer fails to reach the aforementioned 120 tackles, the best reason would be that Moore played enough to keep Greer nice and fresh for fourth quarters.
Best-case: That Greer, Reynolds, and Coley are 1-2-3 on the team in tackles. That would take a lot of pressure off the secondary, cleaning up ballcarriers before they make it to that level.
Worst-case: Not much worse than the best-case, actually. This group is too good to have an apocalyptic worst-case scenario. I guess if there is one, it's that Greer and Reynolds have leveled off and that Coley turns out to be unprepared for the starting job. I can't see them regressing, though. At any rate, even if they've leveled off and won't play any better this year than last, that's still pretty darn good. Also, I'd prefer not to see a rotation between Coley and Romero like we had when London decided to put Aaron Taliaferro in the lineup come hell or high water. Best if Coley takes three-fourths of the snaps.
Starters: #1 Demetrious Nicholson, #22 Drequan Hoskey, #21 Brandon Phelps, #8 Anthony Harris
Backups: #30 C.J. Moore, #26 Maurice Canady, #41 Pablo Alvarez, #27 Rijo Walker
Oh boy. Here we go. There's a lot of raw unproven talent in the receiving corps, waiting to break out and make big plays. And that's a good thing, because when someone messes up, pretty much what usually happens is the quarterback heaves the ball out of bounds, the punt team comes on, and we have a little Learning Time on the sideline. There's a lot of raw, unproven talent with big-time potential on defense, too, but when the secondary messes up, the next play is also special teams, but it's the kick return team this time because argh they just scored a 74-yard touchdown, and it's still Learning Time but it's also Drinky Time for the fans. This is why 6-6 or 7-5 is going to be considered a reasonably successful season.
Tre Nicholson had a very freshmany year last year, mixing veteran-looking plays with ones that said "I was at my prom four months ago, lay off me." He was also small as hell and got run over on a regular basis. This year, he's up to 170 pounds, which is still smallish but much better than the 155 he was running at last year. That alone should save some yardage. This year, there ought to be a big jump in the quality of his play, although he's also going to be called on to defend everyone's best receiver. Thing is, receiver talent in the ACC is pretty shallow, so most weeks, Nicholson ought to be more than up to the task.
On the other side was where the most pitched battle of any in fall camp took place. The loser is still not really a "loser" - cornerbacks rotate like DTs and often show up three at a time on the field, so the fact that Drequan Hoskey is listed as the starter over Maurice Canady is no loss of playing time for Canady. All three of these guys have a big role to play. And there's hope that Hoskey will be ready for the responsibility, rooted mainly in the game-saving pass breakup he made against Florida State last season. Sure, he got beat on a nice move by Bert Reed, but Reed was a veteran, Hoskey was a freshman, and Hoskey had the speed to get back in time.
That speed will be put to good use this year. If nothing else, this group of cornerbacks is fast. Like, roadrunner fast. Hoskey is a star hurdler on track team. Nicholson is Nicholson. Canady put his speed and athleticism on display last year as quarterback for his high school team, and then picked up the nuances of the defense fast enough to rocket near the top of the depth chart in two days at camp. And the fourth cornerback, C.J. Moore (who probably will not redshirt) has some pretty legendary speed of his own - he's easily the fastest member of the incoming freshman class, and that's to be expected since he's the nephew of Olympic sprint champion Gail Devers. Sometimes that speed will just mean they get to the wrong place faster, but there'll be times you just giggle at the possibilities.
Cornerback is still pretty scary, though: two true freshmen, one true sophomore, and a former walk-on. Yeah. Safety is even scarier; in terms of pure time in the program, there's more experience, but none of these guys have ever been counted on for real responsibilities. Rijo Walker - I dunno, man. You can't help but notice that he's spinning his wheels. He was given a lot of chances to earn playing time last year, even got a couple starts and a nifty INT against Indiana, but his snaps dwindled as the year went on. He entered fall camp as a nominal starter, and left it playing second string. Brandon Phelps moved over from cornerback once it became clear we had three that could do the job and that Phelps was needed at safety, and now he's the starter. Again: ton of talent, never been in this position before, probably going to run the wrong direction more than a few times. Same holds true for Anthony Harris.
There might be some experimenting going on early in the year, too. Actually scratch that - there'll probably be a ton of experimenting. Pablo Alvarez is a completely unknown quantity. Anthony Cooper moved from WR early in camp, and will probably get some snaps to see what he might bring to the table. It's absolutely certain that when the game action goes live, this group is going to make mistakes. What remains to be seen is how quickly they learn from those mistakes, and how frequent they are. That in turn will determine what the lineup looks like come November. It might be the same - the players on the field are the most physically talented of the candidates - or it might be completely different. What we do know is to prepare for some scary moments.
Best-case: Whatever mistakes are made don't hurt the team too badly. Sure, these guys are raw, but they're also the future of the position, hopefully for the next three years. If they sometimes look like it, that should be good enough.
Worst-case: Complete anarchy, replete with torched cars and barricaded streets and a lot of watching helpless cornerbacks providing a rearguard escort to the endzone for some receiver in the other colors because the CB thought he had safety help over the top and the safety wandered over to help double-cover a tight end.
A couple weeks ago I wrote a schedule preview for Inside The ACC; instead of replicating the whole thing I'll just direct you there and let you read that. The Cliff Notes version is that October is easyish, November is rather difficult, but September holds all the keys. If UVA can win just one game from Penn State, TCU, or Georgia Tech, they'll be 2-2 going into a relatively easy October with a very good shot at being bowl-eligible by Halloween. If not, most of the fanbase will be demanding a new quarterback. Amazing the difference between 2-2 and 1-3.
There are a couple other ways the schedule shakes out that should give us confidence. Late bye week. Late-season stretch spent mostly at home. And - one of the real kickers here - no Florida State or Clemson, the only two real competitors for the Atlantic Division. We caught a nice break in that respect.
There are some folks that think we should be very happy with 6-6. Since I usually find myself annoyed by the annual overexuberance of our fanbase, I won't begrudge those people their opinion. The secondary alone is enough that you should temper your wildest expectations. Secondaries that inexperienced usually get declared federal disaster zones. But 6-6 probably means losses to TCU, Penn State, GT, NC State, VT, and UNC. Going 7-5 means we beat Richmond, La. Tech, Duke, Maryland, Wake, Miami, and one of the aforementioned teams. Does that sound so hard? Five of those six "assumed wins" are home games, with only Duke on the road. Saying we should be happy to be at 6-6 means we shouldn't necessarily expect to beat teams like Wake or Miami. Where we are in our development, I say we should, and further we shouldn't expect to be cannon fodder for teams like PSU or NC State. We have an underrated quarterback, a hell of a running game, a lot of talent at receiver, a solid defensive line, and an outstanding linebacking corps.
Simply put, if we think we're going to win ACC titles and take back the top dog label in the state, we can't live under our "pleasantly surprised" rock any more. Good teams do things like install a new center and still succeed. Good teams find ways to make up for their glaring weaknesses. 6-6 would mean we go bowling, and I like bowling, especially two years in a row, but changing the culture means no longer being happy about backing into the postseason.
Am I talking Orange Bowl Or Bust here? Good heavens, no. As much as anyone I preach the doctrine that this is a process and it takes time. I've got no illusions or any thoughts of being something we're not. However, it is literally impossible to take any steps forward as a program without winning some games that you're not "supposed" to, or while losing games you should win. Fine, we're not supposed to beat PSU or NC State or whatever. Let's do it anyway. You can't follow up an 8-4 regular season by going 6-6 and saying, oh good, I didn't expect to do this well. Personally, I'll be disappointed with anything less than a 7-5 season. 6-6 will be cool in that it's a bowl season, but it's not a step forward.